Peter Bloom: Mission and admission at Smith: A professor’s call to mind over body



Last modified: Friday, December 05, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — The first-year philosophy course that I took many years ago began with what is called “the mind-body problem,” which concerns the nature of the relationship between the mental and the physical, the immaterial and the corporeal, the spiritual and the substantial, the intellectual and the palpable — you get the idea — and which has engaged thinkers for more than two thousand years.

The current debate over admissions policies at women’s colleges — heightened by the article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley” in the New York Times of Oct. 15 — seems to me to be an extension of that problem.

Some in our society, including the men at Wellesley and others on campuses everywhere, no longer accept as life-determining the genetic realities that appear to prevail at birth. Some purposefully modify their behaviors and bodies in order to reconcile in themselves their corporeal beings and the identities they understand as their own.

That understanding, we know, is governed by genes, by culture and by environment. The categories of female and male, once binary opposites, are now often viewed as overlapping, or indistinct. This, today, is not news. What feels new is the willingness of those of good will to consider the consequences of the irresolution of an issue once viewed as resolved.

As a professor at Smith College, like Wellesley long distinguished for the education it has provided for women, and as one who has been teaching at Smith for over 40 years, I am a participant in the debate over the nature of the population we ought to see as potentially admissible to our institution — potentially, because candidates must obviously meet the rigorous academic standards in place.

Should we describe that population in terms that relate primarily to the body? Or should we describe it in terms that relate primarily to the mind?

Making this choice, at this point in time, is no simple matter.

Mount Holyoke College has struck a compromise. We know from the college’s website that its board considers potentially admissible a person 1) biologically born female, who identifies as a woman; 2) born female, who identifies as a man; 3) born female, who identifies as other; 4) born female, who identifies as neither a man nor a woman; 5) born male, who identifies as a woman; 6) born male, who identifies as other; and 7) born intersex, who identifies as a woman. Inadmissible is a person 8) born male, who identifies as a man.

Are Mount Holyoke’s eight categories exhaustive? Of course not. Nor is it possible exhaustively to articulate all categories of gender identity. As soon as one category is fixed, another is formed.

What about those who reject gender identity, or those whose understanding of their identity is uncertain, or those whose current identity is different from their prior identity, or those who sometimes identify as women, sometimes as men?

How often, or how many hours per week, or since when must such persons identify as women in order to be considered for admission? And if one definitively identifies as a man (as in categories 2 and 8), can we rightfully include the one and exclude the other? In this discussion, language that appears precise has boundaries that in reality are pliable, and smudged.

Faced with such imprecision, which can be dangerously discriminatory (as it is in the case of race), Smith College, I think, should attempt to get ahead of the curve — by changing the currency.

That is, rather than subscribing to a line such as the one Mount Holyoke has drawn between categories 7 and 8, Smith should attempt to define its potentially admissible population upon a different criterion — an intellectual criterion — namely, a manifestation of support for the mission of the college, which we articulate as the education of “women of promise for lives of distinction.”

Given the ever-expanding definition of “women,” which biology and psychology are likely to debate forever, Smith should expand its statement of purpose.

Taking a cue from the vision statement of historically black Howard University — “the College addresses serious issues in society, especially those confronting people of African descent” — Smith, “a college of and for the world” (as we currently denominate ourselves), should attempt, like other institutions of higher learning, to provide foundational knowledge in a broad variety of disciplines new and old. It should attempt to tutor students in how to think, write and speak about the major and minor issues of yesterday and today, to open minds, to challenge received ideas and, in addition, to be distinctive in its historic and continuing commitment to linking the power of the liberal arts to excellence in research and scholarship in the effort to develop leaders — especially women — for the challenges of tomorrow.

How do we determine candidates’ acceptance of such a purpose?

Not via coercion or inquisition. Not via brain scan or body search. We do so by listening carefully to their words, mindful of the mission, and trusting that what we hear is heartfelt.

Peter Bloom is Ross Professor of Humanities in the music department at Smith College.





LIFTOUT Some in our society ... no longer accept as life-determining the genetic realities that appear to prevail at birth.




 

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